Expanding Time to Compress Time

Speaking of search images, "slow" has crept into my field of vision over the past couple weeks, popping up in my conversations and my reading both on- and offline. The Slow Movement, it seems, is about much more than food. Cities, travel, art, research, leadership and, of course, sex are being taken up by advocates of slowing the tempo of everyday life.

My recent run-ins with all things Slow began shortly after returning from the World Economic Forum on Africa. A colleague I'd met there sent me an essay on "The Importance of a Certain Slowness" by Paul Cilliers, which touches on several of these subjects and then presents, from a systems perspective, an argument that "the cult of speed, and especially the understanding that speed is related to efficiency, is a destructive one." Furthermore, "a slower approach is necessary, not only for survival, but also because it allows us to cope with a complex world better."

While I'm not going to use this space to elaborate or further comment on this essay, I will note that the author does not argue against speed, per say, but simply against inappropriate and unreflective speed. Speed as an end in itself.

I forwarded the paper on to a few colleagues and friends, and continued to let my mind muse on the meaning and significance of slowness. A few days later and nearly six months after it was first published in Details Magazine, Micheal Chabon's article on The Clock of the Long Now finally made it to my Mac's screen. I've been following the Clock and The Long Now Foundation for several years, and attend their seminars periodically. So that there is an institution of immense intellectual and artistic prowess "providing counterpoint to today's faster/cheaper mind set and promoting slower/better thinking" was not a new discovery. That Chabon's article came to me in the immediate wake of Cilliers' paper made it stand out. Another hit for search image Slow.

By this time, I was getting a few email responses from the folks to whom I'd sent the Cilliers' paper. A colleague who works at IBM told me "I often find myself "aging" e-mail, even when I could answer it immediately, to take some time to reflect. This interesting paper comes at a moment when... I'm writing with a colleague in India. Our time-zone difference (just about exactly half a day) makes us really conscious of time. The slowness with which we have approached our subject is achieving a better result than if we had hurriedly put something together to meet the publication deadline." A short while later, in what appearances would say was an unconnected event, I read in an In Praise of Slow article that a senior manager at IBM now appends this rallying cry to every email he sends: "Read your mail just twice each day. Recapture your life's time and relearn to dream. Join the slow email movement!" This senior manager was not the same person as I'd emailed the article to.

On to another run-in with slowness...

I am an avid sports fan. Such a fan am I that I'm one of the few Americans without a close or immediate family tie to another country who has been following the World Cup. It is not quite March Madness, but it is a fantastic tournament. Anyway, the point is that earlier today, watching the Brazil-Ghana match, after a series of spectacular ball dribbling manoeuvres by a Brazilian player, the commentator noted that "he seems to slow time down" enabling him to see and do things that don't seem possible to those of us watching. I was struck by an important analogy that this notion of "manufactured" time, or time expansion as I like to call it, has to designing collaborative design processes.

How and where does the quality of slowness fit into events and experiences typically constrained in time and beholden to enormous expectations of outcome? In other words, what is the role of slow in an event designed specifically to compress weeks, months or even years worth of design and decision making into a few days?

I believe it is in opening a significant space for imagination, conjecture, play, modeling and iterative design. This quality is an vital ingredient in successfully covering much ground over a short period.

"Time constitutes not only the medium of thought and feeling in general but also, to a significant extent, their very substance. To put it differently, our total ability to think and feel is directly proportional to the volume of thought or feeling we can hold in our minds within a given moment." - Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living, 1982

Robust processes can, over the course of just a few hours, greatly expand the volume of thought and feeling a group holds collectively in their minds within a given moment. And over the course of a few days, it is possible to increase this volume of thought and feeling by an order of magnitude - or more. Thus, this expansion has the equivalent effect of slowing down time while, paradoxically, enabling a corresponding compression in the time it takes a group of people to discover, design and decide together -- without compromise -- their course of action.

Much more can be said, of course, on these notions of expansion and compression. And I've no doubt that after I hit the "publish" button on this blog, I'll continue to come across new instances of thinking Slow that could find a place here. But it feels like time to let this rest for a while, and for me to begin the slow simmer of the stew I'll be enjoying this evening.